Thursday, October 28, 2010

Same Old 'Song and Dance' Leads to Trouble

In Iraq you learn not to use the same route too often because the enemy will use it as an ambush point. A man sitting in a cave in the remotest corner of the world could very easily predict the general ‘route’ of the GOP response to a terror attack on America. Once you know the general thrust it becomes easy to develop a plan to respond to the response. Muhammad Ali called it the “Rope-a-dope”. When they think they have you where they want you, you actually have them exactly where you want them: ten years in Afghanistan, seven years in Iraq, five thousand American soldiers dead, and billions of dollars spent. The most important goal: bring terrorism into the lives of average Americans in order to affect the political process by creating internal turmoil. Mission accomplished.

Since 9/11, Republicans have tried hard to build the myth they are strong on terrorism and national security issues. The positions that conservatives take regarding our national security are out-dated and predictable, especially in a world where the enemy doesn’t play by old rules. These ideas will get you ambushed. What America needs is fresh thinking on national security, not the same old Republican song and dance.

Republicans say “I’d rather fight them over there than over here.” They would rather have it that way too; it’s much easier to fight us on their home turf than for them to continually plan terror attacks that take years to put in place and are often discovered at their genesis.

I can’t claim to speak for all veterans, but I know enough who agree our response to 9/11 with a GOP administration at the helm was not well planned or executed. It was based upon assumptions made from experience that didn’t apply to the Middle East and the military maxim that every Army Private knows “hope for the best, but plan for the worst” wasn’t followed. The grounds for the Iraq war were non-existent and the opportunity for success in Afghanistan was missed when focus was diverted from it.

This is not a strong showing from a Republican party that claims to be strong against terrorism and national security. Now that the war in Iraq is winding down and General Petraeus has the pieces in place to be successful in Afghanistan, America needs to give its commanders and troops the chance to succeed.

If we have learned anything over the last decade it is that it takes more than “Manoeuvre warfare” to win. It takes building trust and relationships and understanding that you cannot guarantee security for citizens from inside fortress walls. It means using restraint of force and building local security capacity. In Afghanistan, you control only the ground you’re standing on and you can’t do that from Kabul. We have also come to understand that we cannot see Afghanistan and Pakistan as two separate problems, but we do have two different relationships with their governments.

Besides projecting our strength overseas, a progressive view addresses our weaknesses. In the past weeks there have been multiple attacks in Pakistan against NATO fuel convoys. The Taliban have latched on to the strategy of the Iraq insurgency: catch the tiger by his tail. One in twenty-four military convoys end with the death of one of our troops. Up to 80% of the load of those convoys is fuel. America’s dependence on oil is a strategic liability, but one being addressed by a forward-thinking military that’s slashing dependence on oil.

That liability for our troops is also a strategic liability for America at home. We send billions of U.S. dollars to the Middle East for oil and some of it invariably ends up in the hands of those that support terrorism. The average American inadvertently contributes every time they buy gas. There is agreement in all camps that the issue must be addressed along with responding to conflicts accelerated by climate change, such as the Pakistan floods where the Taliban and Al Qaeda are offering aid to victims America isn’t reaching and ‘winning hearts and minds’ away from us.

America has learned much in the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan and it will take continued fresh, forward thinking to secure victory there, not the same old song and dance and Cold War thinking offered by Republicans. America wins when it changes its strategy to address a changing world. Going back to the recycled ideas of the GOP and predictable conservative policies would be a strategic mistake.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Military-Opportunity Complex

This post originally appeared on on 13 October, 2010

This post is the fifth in a series about the Progressive Military

I knew my entire life that I was going to join the military at 18. There was never a time where I can recall I thought anything else. It wasn’t pushed on me; it was just something I always understood. My father and several of my uncles are Vietnam vets, my cousin is a Gulf War vet, and my grandfather and his brothers were in World War II. Iraq is my own particular war. In my family, we serve in the military. Many other American families share the same story.

I was always good academically and very active in school activities. As my high school graduation approached people would ask me or my parents where I was going to college and what I was going to do. Doctor? Lawyer? Architect? The answer was no, he’s shipping off to be a Private in the U.S. Army. The looks were telling. Someone even offered ‘there’s other ways to pay for college, you know.’

For many there are not. I served with guys in the Army who will tell you that if they hadn’t joined they would be in the poorhouse, in jail, or dead in some alleyway. My father was a tough Chicago kid who volunteered at the height of the Vietnam War because he wanted better than sketchy factory jobs. He got it. After ‘Nam, he used the GI Bill to get a degree and a job. He just retired after thirty years of looking out for abused kids with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. The opportunity the military gives has paid dividends not only for my father, but for me and my family, not to mention the thousands of kids my dad helped over the years.

Thirty years after him and at exactly the same place, Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri, I started my military career. I could look out of my barracks window and see across the drill square the same building he had lived in. They shaved my head, gave me a uniform, and a job with a steady paycheck, medical and dental care, a retirement system, and other benefits. I grew up in rural southern Illinois, where the unemployment rate today ranges between 9 and14 percent. A lot of people I grew up with haven’t fared as well, even some of those that went to college.

I had to work hard for it, but I did it, me and over 26 million other American veterans, many of whom might not have otherwise had such opportunities. Today, communities around military posts are more prosperous than industrial cities, tech centers, and college towns. The opportunities granted by military service help Americans of all kinds; studies have found military communities are among the least segregated in the country.

The military not only put money in our pockets, but it has given us work experience we couldn’t get elsewhere. Only around 15 percent of our troops are actually ‘trigger-pullers’; over half work in technical and medical fields and another third work in administration and logistics. These military jobs more often than not have a direct equivalent in the civilian market. It’s no secret that military life creates disciplined, principled, and dedicated workers, an asset to any employer or a good basis for starting a business.

Almost a quarter of Americans have a college degree today and the increasing demand for and availability of degrees to the larger population owes much to the GI Bill. Since 1944, it has helped over 21 million veterans join the educated workforce. The Post 9-11 GI Bill will help hundreds of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans not only get an education, but help pay their cost of living while doing so, something the GI Bill hasn’t done since the 1980’s. It has been touted as part of the economic recovery program by providing the opportunity for many former troops to qualify for better jobs than the currently scarce entry level positions available to those that have only a high school diploma. This is especially important while unemployment among young veterans is estimated at 21 percent. If you can’t find a job, at least you can go to school.

I didn’t join the military just to go to college or for the opportunities. There are many that did and there’s nothing wrong with that. They have earned the thanks of the nation. The GI Bill is a progressive policy that does just that for Americans that might not otherwise have had the opportunity. Serving in the military gives many Americans the chance they need for a career or a good start in life. As for me, I have decided to study law in the end. Without the opportunity the military has given to me and to my family, I would not have been able to. Millions of other Americans share the same story.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

When National Security Means Energy Independence

This post originally appeared on on 12 October, 2010.

This post is the fourth in a series about the Progressive Military

The smell that will always take me and many other vets back to the old Army days is diesel exhaust fumes. When you spend many years of your life rolling around the muddy trails of military training areas in 5-ton trucks or the bumpy roads of Iraq and Afghanistan in armored Humvees, the smell brings on instant nostalgia. It is my hope, and the hope of many senior military leaders, that our next generation of servicemembers won’t know that smell because they won’t be using oil.

There is widespread agreement by institutions on all sides of the political spectrum that energy independence, security, and planning for the repercussions of climate change must be addressed. Former CIA director James Woolsey has called this “the first war since the Civil War that America has funded both sides.” However there is still opposition, mostly from the GOP Congressional minority, to taking real comprehensive steps. Their opposition to a comprehensive energy and climate bill, such as the American Power Act, has stifled momentum on the issue. Too many in Congress want to ensure nothing get done on the issue for quite a while.

Despite Congressional impasse, the military is looking at the issue from top to bottom and pushing forward. The Army is investigating using the safflower as a biofuel and began its Fuel Efficiency Demonstrator (FED) program to develop new vehicle technologies in response to battlefield calls for the need to reduce the number of dangerous convoys that use and transport fuel. The effort doesn’t extend solely to vehicles and equipment; it also extends to the power grids on it installations at home and downrange.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, strongly committed to the issue, has promised that the Navy and Marine Corps will get less than half of its power from fossil fuels within ten years. As far as new energy and combat power are concerned, the electric hybrid ship USS Makin Island and the hybrid-fueled FA-18 “Green Hornet” fighter jet have already made their maiden voyages. The Navy is also committed to making all of their installations energy self-sufficient by 2020.

Not to be outdone, the Air Force has developed an A-10 “Thunderbolt”, a ground attack aircraft, that also runs on a biofuels mixture and plans to test at least three other aircraft models this year. This is a significant development as the Air Force is the military’s top energy consumer. On the ground, Langley Air Force Base has installed a geothermal energy system as part of the Air Force goal to reduce its energy consumption 20% by 2020.

The Pentagon has begun to “wargame” the consequences of climate change that the military may be called upon to address. As resources become scarce, it may lead to conflicts on several continents. U.S. bases may be threatened by rising sea levels. It may also lead to conflict between allies and destabilize stable states and further ruin already shaky ones. It is also no secret that American dependence on oil from unstable regions leaves us vulnerable every time there is a hiccup in the supply caused by unrest or terror attacks.

There may be continued debate as whether we have already or will reach “peak oil”, whether the alarms raised about “foreign” oil are an overreaction, or, most of all, whether climate change is actually happening at all. The U.S. military doesn’t seem to be willing to take the chance that these things aren’t or won’t happen. In the words of energy security advocate and retired Army Chief of Staff General Gordon Sullivan, “We never have 100 percent certainty. If you wait until you have 100 percent certainty, something bad is going to happen on the battlefield.”

If Congress and the American people trust the military to keep them safe, hopefully they will trust the military on energy independence and climate change. General Anthony C. Zinni, retired U.S. CENTCOM commander, has said, “We will pay for this one way or another. We will pay to reduce greenhouse gas emissions today . . . or we will pay the price later in military terms and that will involve human lives.”

Government-Run Healthcare

This post originally appeared on on 11 October, 2010

This post is the third in a series about the Progressive Military

The wounds from the healthcare debate in America are still fresh. There are many in the GOP Congressional minority that would see the healthcare bill repealed, and there has been much scare-mongering about a government-run healthcare system – that patients will be lost in the bureaucracy, they’ll lose control over their health decisions, the quality of care will suffer, and the costs will be tremendous.

If the Veterans Administration healthcare system is an example, those fears are overblown. The military’s government-run healthcare system is not just good in the field, it’s good at home as well and shows that government can do healthcare.

I was a customer of 100% government-run healthcare for eight years. I visited the emergency room, received all my shots and checkups, got my wisdom teeth pulled, and received my prescribed medication all without being killed or turned away by some bureaucrat. I received the same level of care everywhere, whether in Missouri, Washington, Germany, or Iraq. And not just me, my family as well. I’m not alone. There are over 1.4 million Americans on active duty in the U.S. military. If you include their family members, retirees, and those receiving Veterans Administration benefits, the number swells to over 9 million Americans already actively receiving government healthcare.

Active duty troops and their families use the 532 active military medical facilities nationwide and enroll in TRICARE, which is the military’s government-run healthcare system. Reservists called to active duty over 30 days are covered as well. For retirees, TRICARE fills the gap for what Medicare doesn’t cover. CHAMPVA gives the same coverage to family members of disabled or deceased service members no longer serving and gives them access to Veterans Administration hospitals. The Veterans Administration system (VA) coverage has changed from serving only troops with service-connected disabilities to serving all veterans based upon need. There are over 24 million Americans eligible for VA medical benefits at over 1000 facilities nationwide, 9 million of which are over 65.

It’s a well-known fact that the traumas caused on the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan lead, by necessity, to innovations in trauma care. As an Iraq war veteran, I saw this in action personally with our combat medics, especially when they patched me up after suicide car-bomber hit my vehicle head-on. The military health system also develops medical technology, techniques, and procedures that can be used in the civilian world.

The Army’s National Trauma Institute, in cooperation with several universities, collects data from wounded soldiers to identify what can be done to improve their first-response treatment and will help not only on the battlefield, but in civilian hospitals as well. The military is making an exemplary push to digitize medical records in order to make them easier to search through and transfer between locations, not to mention saving money. This idea was picked up in the new healthcare legislation.

The uniformity of the military medical system also pays dividends in health safety against epidemics and pandemics, as exhibited by the fast and nearly-comprehensive immunization rate of soldiers against H1N1. Achieving such rates quickly among the civilian population would be improbable. I and many other soldiers are also vaccinated against diseases many in the civilian population are not anymore, namely small pox and anthrax. Our troops also get the flu shot at the beginning of every flu season. The military was the first to test the effectiveness of flu nasal-spray vaccinations compared with shots to reduce the use and cost of needles. This is done not just for their health, but also to save the system from having to pay more money for sick sailors and airmen later.

The military is devoted to preventing disease, illness, and injury not only because it they take troops off the field, but they also cost the system money. The U.S. Army Public Health Command and similar organizations in the other services are devoted exclusively to this mission.

If you contrast a system that has an interest in seeing that you to stay healthy because it saves them (the government) money with a system that makes money when you are sick, (insurance companies, HMOs) one can see that a pinch of prevention is worth a pound of cure. A similar government system implemented nationwide would save people money, improve their health, and save lives. If universal government-run healthcare is good enough for the troops, it’s good enough for us all.

It’s true the system is not perfect. There have been scandals surrounding military healthcare, such as the living conditions for recovering troops at Walter Reed Medical Center and veterans groups (some of which I am a member of) constantly push for improvements to the VA system. But in general the quality of military healthcare is very good, and proof that government-run healthcare can indeed work.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Military and Innovation

This post originally appeared on on 8 October, 2010.

This post is the second in a series about the Progressive Military

My buddy Jon Gensler is smart. Way too smart. Besides being a West Point grad and serving as an Army battle Captain in Iraq, he has also found the time to take on a joint M.A. from Harvard and MIT. He’s like a mad scientist that instead of working on killer robot chickens, works on solutions to our energy problems. I just like to hear him talk about projects that a generation ago would have been on Buck Rogers or Lost In Space. He didn’t come from some science fiction convention though; he spent the summer at the DoE’s ARPA-E. The good news is he’s not alone.

ARPA-E, the Advanced Research Projects Agency- Energy, is the Department of Energy’s vehicle for focusing on spurring new, ‘outside-the-box’ energy ideas. Among them are programs to develop long-life, low cost batteries for electric vehicles, to harness microorganisms to produce liquid fuels without petroleum or biomass, and ‘carbon capture’ technologies that will prevent carbon monoxide from coal plants entering the atmosphere and contributing to global warming.

What makes ARPA-E different is that it is focused on taking large research risks that may have big payoffs while keeping an eye on real prospects of success. ARPA-E just received its first $400 million budget as part of the Recovery Act in 2009. It isn’t the only such agency and the model isn’t actually a new one.

ARPA-E is based on DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which was created 52 years ago in response to the Russian launch of Sputnik. What began as a space and nuclear technology research agency later turned to counterinsurgency technologies in Vietnam is now an organization dedicated to the research and development of innovations that give the U.S. military an edge on the battlefield today. DARPA research led to guided missiles, stealth technology, and the unmanned aerial drones now in use worldwide.

DARPA and ARPA-E are praised as models that are ‘lean’ on bureaucracy and focus on high-risk, high-reward ideas within a relatively small budget. What is also interesting about them is that they highlight the fact that the military and the government can drive innovation. This pays dividends not only for our energy needs and national security, but for our economy as a whole, since the private sector tends to build on these innovations

Many claim to have invented the internet, but ARPAnet was the true beginning of today’s World Wide Web. DARPA also invented GPS and speech translation technology, among others innovations the use of which have generated billions of dollars in profits for private firms in America and worldwide. Imagine a day at the office without the internet or shipping and logistics without GPS. The ideas that ARPA-E is currently working on have as much potential to make just as large an impact.

Today many private firms are not willing to take research and development risks, especially in our current economic state. While others cut, DARPA has continued to innovate no matter the political or economic climate using the same model since my father was born. The breakthroughs expected at ARPA-E are coming at a time when many companies are drastically cutting their R&D budgets. Through fat and lean years for America, the DARPA model has been a successful example of the military and the government driving innovation, and all on a ‘shoestring’ budget of less than $500 million annually.

‘Thinking outside the box’ has become a motto in American business. No matter how much out-of-box thinking the private sector does, it is still limited by the ‘box’ of profit. DARPA and ARPA-E are able to think outside of even this box. Their motto is more akin to the British Commandos: ‘Who Dares, Wins’. It is important for the government to continue to fund such programs because it can do so independent of the economic climate. DARPA and ARPA-E show that government can spur innovation in a lean, streamlined, and cost-efficient manner, can think ‘outside the box’, and can spur economic growth in the private sector while giving our troops an edge in the fight.

Friday, October 8, 2010

What's Progressive About the U.S. Military?

This post originally appeared of Progressive Fix on 7 October, 2010.

This post is the first in a series about the Progressive Military

It has now been nine years since the 9/11 attacks, and since that day the average American has heard an awful lot about the military. We are fighting extremism worldwide and still have troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet many progressives remain uncomfortable with the military, often assuming that it is a conservative organization because political conservatives are so eager to identify themselves with our troops.

This is a series about how the military is a more progressive organization than many people give it credit for. It will help progressives better appreciate the many ways that the U.S. Military operates and accomplishes progressive goals. It is also aimed at conservatives who implicitly trust the military and might see issues like climate change, healthcare, economic opportunity and energy policy as vital issues.

The military is a more progressive organization than many give it credit for and it is my hope in this series of articles to do just that.

Despite the daily attention to military issues, it is striking to me how little those who never served in the military know about it. After I was already in the Army a few years, my father, who retired after 23 years of military service, met a friend of mine. He told him that I was at Fort Lewis and went up to Seattle on weekends. He was surprised and asked, ‘you mean they let them out?’

Since 1975 only around one percent of the population has worn the uniform. Many have family members or friends who served, but this only gives them a bit more than the basic knowledge the majority of Americans have. For most, opinions and attitudes toward the military are developed by the news media, TV shows, and movies. Many of our elected leaders, despite their claims to the contrary, have little more knowledge than the general population and surprisingly few of them have served themselves though they make very important decisions involving the military every day. Though others have claimed it falsely, there are only four Iraq war veterans in Congress.

This, however, doesn’t seem to keep them from claiming to speak for the military. The debate about the Iraq ‘surge’ and the debate about the future of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan during the 2008 election prompted many on the right to claim ‘you can’t support the troops without supporting the war.’ I served in Iraq and Kuwait during these debates. I didn’t support the war in Iraq, but I fought as hard as I could in it every day, receiving a Purple Heart in a suicide bombing. I served with others who did support it and did the same. Servicemembers do their duty no matter their personal opinion. Anyone claiming to presume that they know what servicemembers believe doesn’t understand the concept of duty.

And yet, the recent debate on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ centered on conservatives claiming troops don’t want to worry about sharing their ‘foxhole’ with a homosexual. Our troops haven’t dug ‘foxholes’ in quite a while. This comment exhibits an opinion based on the stereotypical swaggering, macho draftee of Hollywood films. The truth is our all-volunteer military today is made of service members that see themselves as military professionals. They have an opinion about the matter, but once the decision has been made they accept it and won’t be distracted, especially in combat, by such trivial matters as the sexual orientation of their squadmate. This professionalism was previously exhibited when the military desegregated, despite opposition. Sixty years later, troops of all colors and genders serve well beside one another.

A closer look at the policies and culture of the U.S. military today shows that it is more progressive than many traditionally think. There are many lessons progressives can draw on from today’s military, and conservatives’ trust of the military on national security issues should translate to trust on other issues.

The military healthcare system shows that government can do big healthcare well and efficiently; it leads the way on addressing energy independence, efficiency, and the repercussions of climate change; despite its size and controversies, it has shown real commitment to providing economic opportunity; and it has an culture of innovation and learning, among other examples. It is my hope in this series of articles to point out where the military is exhibiting progressive thinking and what lessons we can draw from the military.